When Emmanuel Macron attempts to speak in the language of the people, it just makes things worse. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.
French President Emmanuel Macron is trying very hard to understand what the gilets jaunes (yellow vest protesters) are trying to tell him. Try as he may — and he has every reason to keep trying — Macron’s remarks while going out among the people show he hasn’t understood the main point.
In a valiant attempt to launch the “great national debate” aimed at clarifying the issues and preparing the future, Macron had this to say : “Les gens en situation de difficulté, on va davantage les responsabiliser car il y en a qui font bien et il y en a qui déconnent.” The Washington Post didn’t dare to translate this directly, but summed it up in the following way: “Macron said he wants to help ‘people in a difficult situation’ find their way out of poverty by making them ‘more responsible,’ because ‘some are doing the right thing, and some are messing around.’” The Post also mentioned that Macron used “a vulgar verb in French” without printing it: déconner.
Déconner doesn’t ordinarily mean “messing around.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Act in an offensively stupid way that is clearly unacceptable to rational, civilized people
As explained below, there is something — in historical and etymological terms — profoundly vulgar about the verb “déconner,” even if it often simply means “to doing something one ought not do.” Macron’s use of it poses a twofold problem. Déconner isn’t an acceptable item in the public “presidential” lexicon. The sound itself shocks because of its associations. But more seriously, using it as Macron has done to describe other people’s habitual behavior clearly reveals an attitude of patronizing scorn.
Recognizing the impossibility of translating the words themselves into English, here’s an attempt to convey the ideas and the cultural connotations of Macron’s sentence: With regard to people who find themselves in difficulty, we are going to make a greater effort to get them to act responsibly (literally, “responsibilize” them) since some of them do things correctly and others typically fuck up.
In other words, Macron has fallen into the trap of validating the principal complaint the protesting masses in France have formulated with regard to his behavior and his policies. He is an arrogant, judgmental elitist with a superiority complex, an example of what we might call “class supremacy” in a comparison with the notion of “white supremacy.” His words in French sound only slightly less scornful of the French people than US President Donald Trump’s characterization of Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists,” while admitting that some of them are “good people.” In one sense, Macron’s attitude is more shocking, since he is expressing contempt for his own people, his own electorate, whereas Trump had the tact to insult foreigners who couldn’t vote.
Macron’s discourse implicitly defines a class of well-off people who exercise the duty of teaching the notion of “responsibility” to the rabble, who may have forgotten or never even understood what it meant. He rhetorically invites his listeners to identify with his class by sharing the same superior attitude with regard to those who “déconnent.” Even the simple expression, “il y en a” (“there are among them some who…”) recalls Trump’s rhetoric concerning Mexicans.
The idea of an open debate, with “no taboos” (as Macron bravely insists) should please the protesters. But the standoff between Macron and the people will endure as long as he continues to demonstrate that, despite his willingness to listen to the list of the gilets jaunes’ grievances (doléances, as in the “cahier de doléances” of 1789 that spawned the French Revolution), he sees the problem uniquely in terms of the behavior of those who “déconnent.”
Déconner is a verb built from the noun “con,” which is the origin of the English word “cunt” that can be used in French as a vulgar noun referring to female genitalia or as an adjective expressing moral condemnation and contempt. But in contrast with English, in everyday French, con quite often simply means “stupid” or “negligent,” a word to be used after something has gone wrong. People often accuse themselves by blurting out, que je suis con even after a minor mistake. It means nothing more serious than: How stupid of me!
It is tempting to compare Macron’s “qui déconnent” with President Charles de Gaulle’s “chienlit” (literally, “shit in bed”), which he used to describe the chaos of the May 68 riots. But few French people at the time were even aware of the word, which derived from the by then largely forgotten tradition of Carnaval, the festivities preceding the austerity of Lent. But de Gaulle was reacting to a situation of serious chaos that actually forced him to flee Paris. And, when the French heard it, the word appeared simply to be exotic rather than judgmental.
But here’s the real lesson: The current drama in French society is a reflection of a something deeper than the discontent of May 68. Though rarely articulated in this way, it’s about the perception that democracy itself has failed. May 68 was a wild attempt to overturn the reigning political class and allow a younger generations that espoused very different cultural values to run the show. Today’s drama reflects a loss of faith in democracy itself, the alienation of the people. It explains why the gilets jaunes themselves have consistently steered away from the initiatives proposed by the political classes.
Is this so different from what is happening elsewhere and equally spectacularly, notably in the UK and Trump’s US? It’s a crisis bigger than Macron. And it isn’t only the people “in a difficult situation” who have “deconned”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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